Can I have your phone number?

For the whole time I’ve been in China (5 years next month!) I’ve lived in what are regarded as “Small” cities. The first city I lived in has a population of over 8 million people. My current city has a population of just under 5 million people.  However, the foreigner population is nothing in comparison in these cities. I think my current city has less than 50 foreigners.

So as you may imagine, we stick out. I have white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. I couldn’t be less Asian looking. Even when my hair was black, people could tell I was foreign from a mile away.

A lot of Chinese people, especially from the older generations, have never seen a foreigner before. It is a surreal experience walking down the street and having people stop dead to stare open mouthed at you. Or have them grab their friends to make them look at you because they can’t believe you are actually a foreigner. There is also my pet hate of the people who think it’s ok to randomly take your photo without permission. 

I still remember one morning I was walking to work and was waiting at a crossing and a guy was cycling by, saw me and continued to stare right up until he hit the kerb and fell off his bike! Luckily he was going slowly so he wasn’t hurt, except maybe his pride!

Often, these stares are accompanied with shouts of “Hello” followed by hysterical giggles. Other times, the hello comes out sounding like a question. Then there are the other ones who wait until they are just past you to say hello.  Most of the time, “Hello.” is the only English word they know, so the best thing to do is smile, reply and keep going on with your day. If you want a funny reaction, say hello back but in Chinese, most people will be astounded!

There are some people that don’t fall into the above categories. There are some Chinese people who can speak some English and as soon as they lay eyes on you, you become their new goal. This happened to me on Friday when I was going to work. I was working at a school far away from my home, so I had to take the bus. I had noticed this woman on the bus, as I like to people watch.

I didn’t think anything about it as I packed up my stuff when my stop was approaching. I got off the bus, headphones in, and I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned around and the woman from the bus was smiling at me and talking. I took my headphones out and said, “Sorry?” Her face lit up when I spoke English. So she asked me why I was in China and I told her working, then that I had to hurry to class. Then she asked me the dreaded question: “Can I have your phone number?”

Any foreigner who has lived in China for a length of time will undoubtedly have been asked this question close to 1000 times. You know this person wants your number for probably 1 of 2 reasons, reason 1: You are a foreigner and they think it’s cool to have foreign friends. Reason 2: They want to learn English from you. 

It’s a really awkward moment when you have to decide whether or not you want to give this completely random stranger your personal phone number. You have to decide quickly what to do or that awkward moment when they ask gets even more awkward. To be honest, I don’t think there is a right or wrong thing to do in this situation. 

They might be a really nice person or they might be a complete lunatic, but you have to quickly decide after only having seen the person for a total of 30 seconds. So, to give or not to give? That’s the question. In my personal experience I tend not to give my number out to random people like that because then there’s the pressure of them only wanting to know you because you are a foreigner or just wanting free English lessons from you. 

I guess at the end of the day, it’s just one of the things you have to be ready to accept when you move to a different country. If you can’t deal with something like this, then you don’t stand a chance with other things, like baijiu dinners. But that’s a whole other blog entry! 


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jodivin
    Jan 15, 2014 @ 23:10:28

    Hello! First, I am American. I also teach English in China. Qingdao. It is good to “hear” from another foreigner about the issues we live with day-to-day…..voluntarily! I enjoyed your book reviews and understand completely about the phone, photos, and staring. I am 62 so add honored aged to the list for me. Good work. Anna


    • forfirith87
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 00:46:30

      I’m glad you found this relatable. It’s amazing what you learn to live with out here isn’t it? But the good points definitely out way the bad. 🙂


  2. Martha Kennedy
    Jan 31, 2014 @ 01:27:10

    I lived in Guangzhou in 1982. I loved it. I also read your post on your two families. I also had a family in China, two of them. They were Chinese families, though, not western. My Chinese brother now lives in Manitoba. “Our” mother died just two years ago, but when she visited my brother in Canada, she always called me. I do not speak Cantonese and my Mandarin is not great, and she spoke no English, but somehow we always understood each other and actually talked on the phone for several minutes communicating. When I lived in China people didn’t have phones. If someone wanted to make a phone call, they had to go to a public phone bureau (if it were an overseas call) or stand in line on a street corner after buying a ticket. There was a man or woman sitting at a table with a phone in front of them that everyone could use. People asked me if they could practice their English or if I would come to their apartment for a meal. I have green eyes and had reddish hair — the coloring of demons! I stopped traffic, even in Shanghai. I loved China, I enjoyed teaching there very, very much and now I have many Chinese students. Sometimes I hear English speaking with the accent from Guangzhou and I get homesick.


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